Roqayah’s Story

What I Faced and How I Changed

Growing up as a refugee of war, I faced huge losses and dealt with great chaos. These and other events in my life have taught me not necessarily to enjoy change, but certainly how to adapt to it.

I was born in Iraq to a great family. We lived in a suburban neighborhood of Baghdad, called Taji, where most people owned farmland and big houses. I had two older brothers, Abdullah and Anas, but I was the favorite child because I was the baby of the family. My family wasn’t rich; we led a simple life, and I was surrounded by love and attention.

Then in 2003, when I was 5 years old, the war started. My great family was altered, my beautiful country was destroyed, my simple life vanished. My life consisted of tanks, soldiers, helicopters, and fear.

In 2005, my mother was kidnapped because of her work as a translator for the Americans. We paid a ransom and got her back, but she was no longer safe in Iraq, so we moved to Damascus, Syria. That was when my life as a refugee began. My mom found a job as a humanitarian worker for the United Nations, where she helped other Iraqi Refugees.

That same year my family faced a great tragedy, with the unexpected death of my oldest brother, Anas. Two years later, my father was threatened with arrest by the Syrian government, so he went to stay with his family in Iraq. Months after he left, my mother was arrested by the Syrian intelligence for refusing to spy on the Iraqi refugees she was helping.

I was nine and I was left alone with my eleven-year-old brother, Abdullah. We had nowhere to go. We lived with strangers, with relatives, and with family friends – whoever had the room to take us. We only talked to dad on the phone.

After four months, my father made arrangements to smuggle my brother and me into Iraq, since our legal papers were lost. During that horrifying trip, I had to remain confident and strong for my brother who was extremely confused. To cross the border, we hid behind the seat of a bus driver in a space so small that we could hardly breathe. When we finally made it home and were surrounded by family, my life seemed stable again, but it didn’t last. A month later, my father took my brother and me back to Syria because my mother was released from prison with the help of Amnesty International. Then, two days later my brother and I were on a plane with our mom to Chicago.

It was 2008. I was ten-years-old and didn’t speak English. One year later, I finished the English as a Second Language program at my school and was placed in regular classes. In eighth grade, I moved to Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. I attended Evanston Township High School, where I met a very diverse group of friends. I took off my headscarf and felt free again.

In Evanston, I changed from the lost refugee girl to a normal teen. I raised my grades from D’s to A’s, and I went from ESL-based classes to Honors and AP classes. I transformed from being the helpless refugee to the mentor who helps other refugees through volunteering at a resettlement agency.

I faced many challenges, and I learned how to overcome them. My childhood was built around fear, loss, intolerance, and despair. Yet, I learned strength, resilience, confidence, and most importantly: adaptation. I learned how to obtain valuable lessons from my bad experiences rather than let them restrain me. Because of my strong will I have not only adapted, but I excelled. I am now assured that I can overcome any challenge that comes my way.


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